An Ethnomusicology of the Baylan

The following content felt very important to me personally and it also made me so very sad.

I sat in on one of Cecilia’s classes in linguistic anthropology. The professor made it clear that such an intangible thing as language was still no mere point of philosophical debate. People agree to words for that which we embody and enact. Platonic philosophers can get bent.

Of course, in that class, the word would lead. A cursory glance through Life Hacks tells me that on the contrary, embodiments and enactments should lead, because the word or name for a thing limits our thinking.

Then I read Deepak Chopra’s The Way of the Wizard, and what I neglected to address in my review of it was when Chopra casually stated that Alchemy came from India. My first book about Alchemy was MacCoun’s who tried to combine Vajrayana and maybe chakras, and I didn’t get the feeling that these traditions combined well, at least not on the page. Maybe some embodied enactments in Hermeticist Alchemy came off to Chopra as very similar to some Indian mystical traditions? At this point I’d go by the word history as an indicator for who consolidated the ideas described by the words, and where.

The word “Alchemy” contains the Arabic article al- combined with the name for Egypt, the land of black soil, Khemia (or possibly the Greek khymatos, “to pour, especially to pour juice or sap”.) The discipline might be slightly less chemic now, for the most part, let alone chemical.

I also sat in a couple of Cecilia’s Religious Systems classes, and flinched several times at Durkheim’s use of totemism and too many other important writers’ respectably academic use of shamanism. When I asked one of Cecilia’s classmates about Mudang because she came from Korea, and Cecilia didn’t know what a Mudang was, and I didn’t know either which was why I asked, but I forgot how to pronounce Babaylan which I guessed was sorta maybe close to something kinda like—

I resorted to the S-word already.

There’s a lot more of that sort of thing coming up, though I really felt that that the following lecture by Grace Nono to the Harvard School of Divinity’s Women’s Studies in Religion Programme about Philippine shamanism is…important.

The general term for practitioner in this indigenous Philippine practice is babaylan, a word that’s probably from the Hiligaynon language (but I’m not certain: you can’t skip a pebble here without annoying representatives of like 5 different ethnolinguistic groups that occupy that distance, but of course I’m exaggerating) which is the mother tongue of my corporeal roommate Cecilia. My language would have been Tagalog, which is completely different—not a dialect, a completely different language—and I grew up in Jakarta anyway and instead learned Bahasa (which is the word for “language” in Bahasa Indonesia) in addition to my mother’s language, which was Bahasa Inggris.

Grace Nono talks about baylan, a possible linguistic cognate of babaylan. After taking to the podium, her initial introduction is in a spoken Philippine language. I understood every noun of it, but either the conjugation or the accent is unfamiliar to me. Or maybe I didn’t understand every noun, I only think I do because the syllables sound familiar by complete coincidence. Maybe the introductory speech actually was in Tagalog, but too technical and/or spoken too fluently for me to understand. In any case, this speaker having a mother from Mindanao and a father from Luzon is a significant regional distinction.

Filipino was supposed to be the national language, kind of like how Bahasa Indonesia is different from Javanese or Balinese, but last I checked, Filipino was mostly Tagalog anyway. Cecilia’s better at complaining about that than I am. To protest this imperialism of the capital, I refused to learn this domineering language. Also because Tagalog is slightly less agglutinative than Entish and difficult to learn. I speak English instead, which isn’t at all imperialistic or privileged. (The English language is totally imperialistic, everyone. And so is Esperanto, kind of.) Seriously, though, Cecilia and I speak to each other in English, except for the words that English doesn’t have for some things. My family took a trip to the northernmost island of Batanes once, and the people there didn’t even speak the language of the capital, they spoke the language of Batanes and they spoke English. I’ve heard people from the region of Cebu speak Cebuano and English. We’ve got to start somewhere.

The lecture above contextualizes the baylan on the border of Visayas and Mindanao. The baylan that is Nono’s specific case study, and more broadly babaylan, practice a way of life and spirituality in decline. This decline is evidently due to the introduction of both Christianity and Islam, Western medical science, environmental devastation, the political tensions between modern capitalist development and the pushback movement of militant communism, and that some baylan are even captured and fed to crocodiles. Wait, what? What. WHAT. Apparently all the aforementioned circumstances didn’t make life difficult enough. Still hung up on the Burning Times? The Crocodile Times are still happening! (I watched National Geographic documentaries. Death by crocodile is messy and painful.)

Baylan continue to exist and practice, at least fitting in the communities that don’t feed them to crocodiles. Nono asserted that the “disruption” caused by a baylan‘s continued existence, to commercial development, to recognized world religions, to violently antitheist communism, is not necessarily active resistance. I can guess that there would be some digging in of the heels when getting dragged towards the crocodile is involved, but seriously, some people just be how they be.

I’m just going to put dots on the rest of the lecture’s parts.

  • (7 mins) Nono addresses the universalization of the term shaman, a consequence of globalizing European modernity, according to Thomas Carl Oliberts(?) The term babaylan similarly gained prominence not by the choice of the babaylan themselves, but because of nationalists, feminists, decolonization scholars, and social movements since the 1980s. The term refers to the ritualist, oralist healers in the Visayas. The same function or role is performed across the Philippine islands.
  • Nono describes the main informant, whose name I think is spelled Ondine Potensiano. The event described takes place in/near Surigao del Norte, among the people known as Agusan Manobo.
  • Important concepts include the entities known as abiyan (I hope it’s spelled that way) and the practice of yagung, or the embodied voice. The embodied voice becomes enacted in the gudgud ritual songs, or the tudlum (possibly tud’um) songs.
  • (11 minutes) Ondine suffered a long bout of an undiagnosed illness. As a granddaughter of a baylan, this deceased relative descended upon her as an abiyan at which point Ontine began to heal herself, and conduct healing ceremonies, childbirthing, and so on.
  • Of interest to an ethnomusicologist, is how this yagung is generated, how it is listened to by ritual participants, what the yagung tells us about baylan and abiyan, and how this relates to dominant understandings of voice.
  • Dominant understandings of the voice (in the West, the voice has an individual material source, Roman rhetoritician Quintilla says that every being has a voice of their own, Mladen Dolar wrote that we can “unfailingly identify a person by the voice…the voice is like a fingerprint, instantly recognizable and identifiable”)
  • (15 mins) Connors notes: Late classical and medieval concept of the body was not an object so much as a dynamism, vulnerable to invasion by other forces and agencies; “insides” and “outsides” produced each other reciprocally, and this was steadily eroded in the 17th and 18th centuries by the notion of the body as an object in a coherent and fixed field, an individual unity by itself.
  • Such a concept of the body, and by extension the voice, was introduced via colonialism to indigenous people in different parts of the world, which modern society now compelled to rid their own bodies and voices of coming and goings of ancestors, deities, and spirits.
  • “…the relational voice that arises from plural and overlapping materialities continues to be heard as we speak in ways that does not annul the individual agent, but maintain a critical participation in composite acts of voicing.”
  • It would be easy enough to locate the baylan‘s spirit helpers, the abiyan, in a pantheon not their own, and in so doing, distort baylan experience. Vicente Rafael writes: “…in reorganizing the structure of native beliefs…(standard missionary practices situate/document) spirits in a type of spiritual order that positions this hierarchy as part of a set of reflections of a distant pre-Christian past.” Other misunderstandings include how missionaries equated offerings as a sign of respect to these spirits with idolatry, conflating the nature of these offerings with that of Christian offerings.
  • In comparison with Haitian spirits, by McCarthy Brown: “The Vodou spirits are not always models of the well-lived life; rather, they mirror the full range of possibilities inherent in the particular slice of life over which they preside. Failure to understand this leads observers to portray these spirits as demonic (…) Virtue is less an inherent character trait than a dynamic state of being that demands ongoing attention and care. Virtue is achieved by maintaining responsible relationships, characterized by appropriate gifts tangible and intangible.” When such relationships are disrespected or disrupted, illness can result that can be healed with the intervention of the baylan.
  • (20 mins) Description of the Panumanan ritual, involving prayers to the Creator for protection, and a string of beads and bells dedicated to the spirits, and a transfer of human song to spirit song from the same voice. The spirit was an established one in the myth of the people, followed by Ondine’s deceased grandmother’s spirit. The first message to come through: “For us to sing in a house not our home makes us feel ashamed.” When asked after the future of humans, considering hardships and uncertainties, the spirit replied in song that, “No one accepts the law of Ginoo/Magbabaya anymore, that’s why you shouldn’t be surprised at the difficulties people are experiencing.” A spirit of midwifery and healing added, “Even our medium commits many mistakes!” The informant later clarified that these included drinking too much, skipping ritual offerings, not owning a gong that was necessary to the ritual, and having children who misunderstood or despised tradition. Returning to the topic of human concerns: “We have become weak, lowly and diminished in our ability to help and to keep assurances regarding the future.” Finally, a specific patient was brought to the baylan, and the recommended remedy was for the patient to apologize to the patient’s own father (whose own abiyan convinced a storm spirit to curse the patient) and offer a chicken as sacrifice so that the patient’s leg would no longer feel pain.
  • (32 mins) Nono’s disclaimer: “I knew I wasn’t necessarily sharing in my fellow ritual participants’ habitus—” (Becker’s term for overlapping structures of understanding) “—of listening…for though I was born and raised in the same province, and I had ritual healers also among my maternal relations in Mindanao, I was not socialized in baylan rituals and their sounds, having grown up in a heavily colonized lowland area where rituals hardly took place. I was outside this community of listeners.
  • Description of the mechanics of the trance among those who conduct the rituals, and the “summoning songs” that act like a telephone—those go both ways between baylan and abiyan. During possession, a baylan can both give voice to an abiyan and hear the abiyan in conversation with those beyond the body who those in the corporeal realm could not hear. This implies multiple levels of listening.
  • (43 mins) Description of the bodies of the abiyan: invisible and intangible except to those who also have a meditator or special hearing, light enough to travel with the wind and penetrate walls and human body parts, an abiyan‘s original form takes a gender and an age that help determine the quality of voice but these forms and voices can change, location in the cosmology (such as a deceased elder would inhabit Maybuyan, the city of the dead, and travel to the world of the living, or a nature spirit would dwell in the mountains and also travel to take possession of a baylan), categorized as ancestors, land spirits, and those with wider jurisdictions such as storms, all employed under a Creator.
  • (47 mins) Obstacles to abiyan activity, rivals of people’s devotion, and Western medicine, have chased away the abiyan. The continued applicability of shamanistic healing, and the culturally acceptable medicines.
  • (52 mins) “At this point, I would like to ask a question. Is yagung-s or voices’ permeability and plurality applicable only to baylan? What about people like ourselves, who may not even believe in spirits, let alone think of ourselves as entered by these spirits?” Martin Dowdry: The voice is constructed in part through our memetic, dialectic, dialogic, and polyphonic relationships with the voices that surround us from birth, voice is not the essence of a unitary self, but an instrument through which our personalities and our many overlapping selves are projected out into the world.
  • (53 mins) Nono sings a tudlum, a ritual song without possession, distinguished from the gudgud, which is a song guided by the abiyan.
  • (55 mins) Closing statement on reclaiming ancestral voices.
  • (56 mins) Q & A portion, from a scholar in Chinese shamanism. What is the social or legal status of baylan? What could be the psychological or social factors that make someone want to be a shaman, or shamanic healer, in spite of those obstacles? Answer. The Philippine government gives legal status to albularyo and hilot practitioners, but ritualists—Babaylan, broadly—not so well-consiered. (Baylan continue to be fined for practicing midwifery and the one giving birth also penalized with a fine, noted later.) As for the traits of a potential baylan, nobody wants to be one, not only because of the stigma, but because the life of a baylan is a commitment to instability and poverty. It takes a kind, gentle, and generous soul. It takes a conscientiousness to the spirit world and adherence to the rituals, and a talent for speech and singing.
  • Inaudible question by Ann Braude, who introduced Nono at the beginning of the video.
  • (62 mins) Q & A portion, from a scholar in Peruvian shamanism, noting the commonalities in colonial history between Philippine shamanism, Chinese shamanism, and Peruvian shamanism. A minister of health tried to outlaw Ayuhuasca, and did so successfully for two weeks until people revolted. Urbanites in Latin America and further north increased the commercial demand for Ayuhuasca, and the consequent subculture of charlatanism. A friend of this scholar, a French doctor apprenticed among local shamans, had these spiritual guides direct him to treat drug addiction, and augmented this shamanic practice with a medical degree and transpersonal/Jungian psychotherapy. Sometimes, a spirit is involved in the havoc, and states that “Modernity willfully closes its eyes to this reality (of spirits.)” A colleague of this questioner, the Dean of Mt. Julio College or Smith College, has a book of channelled messages from a Tibetan Bodhisattva, Teachings from Manjushri, authorship encouraged by the Bodhisattva. Answer. There is a growing fascination among the intellectual elite who want to know more about the babaylan, previously inaccessible as history textbooks claim the babaylan have completely disappeared. Nono’s work involves uniting well-meaning intellectuals with those who can more patiently teach an unfamiliar embodied practice beyond intellectual discourse. (Mention of the legal persecution of midwives come up at this point.)
  • (70 mins) Q & A portion. How does someone receive recognition, or otherwise qualify? Is a teacher-student relationship required? To what extent is this formalized or is it informal? Answer The first way is through lineage, as in an apprenticeship. When Ondine’s grandmother passed away, the spirit of this grandmother continued this informant’s training. Otherwise, a potential babaylan have strange dreams and fall ill as a way of spirit initiation. Ritual acceptance of this initiation can involve animal sacrifice, that’s the extent of the formality. If the practice is effective, then more people begin to refer others to a babaylan. The practice is not generally to be advertised.
  • (71 mins) Q & A portion. About the fossilized or idealized notion of the babaylan, and the competition between the traditional spirits with other religious spirits and forms of modernity. Have there been any changes in the conception of the spirit world that reflect changes in the contemporary world? For example, voice recording, do those also get reflected in the spirit world or concepts thereof? Answer. The different spirits of different babaylan would have different reactions to recordings. Some allow only still photography. Others would be eager for the recording of these practices with cutting-edge technology. Sometimes there are disagreements between the babaylan and the abiyan. (However, no mention of the concept of the spirit world changing to reflect or as this adapts to the presence of technology.)
  • (74 mins) Q & A. What is the journey of these multiple voices at work? If the spirit voice is not just the reproduction of existing language, then what is the implication of the spirit voice, in terms of a reconstitution of the language and maybe the creation of a different language? These babaylan, what is the relational field? What is the nature of community between them? Answer. The second question’s answer comes first, because the first question is complicated. There is no centralized governing power amog babaylan. Each community will have a family that has the lineage. Babaylan don’t necessarily know each other, they call different ancestors, they call different spirits, and adhere to different histories. There can be common threads between practices, but also differences of course. Only with recent intervention are some of these babaylan beginning to meet, and for the most part, these babaylan were happy to meet with each other, introducing spirits to each other. As for reconstitution of language? Clarification is needed. Q & A (78 mins) Any language is understood theoretically in terms of social practice. The babaylan believe in a world of language, but when you hear the voice of the spirit, then it is not just the reproduction of an existing social language. What can be the implications of that with rethinking language? Would new forms of poetry and literary work come from this? Answer. It’s the other way around. The language of the Manobo come from spirits. The spirits do not reproduce the language of humans, the humans reproduce the language of spirits. The human language does change due to history and upon encountering another ethnolinguistic group, but then it seems the language of spirits keep an archaic quality. That’s why interpreters who are elders are needed, because younger people don’t understand what the spirits are saying. It’s not just the languages’ referential meanings that are important in this practice, however, but the sound itself. It’s important, if you become a babaylan, you have to learn how to not just speak the words, but to sing them in a way the spirits can recognize. To the spirits, talking is sung, in the same way that walking is dance.
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